PINEHURST, N.C. — They were two players who would go on to become major champions and best buddies. But back in the early 1980s, Paul Azinger didn’t know what to think when he met Payne Stewart.
“I had a hard time liking him at first,” Azinger said Tuesday.
Stewart’s brashness would subside over time. He matured into a gracious competitor and a fine family man who became an admired figure after he won the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, a victory that happened a little more than four months before he died in a plane crash.
Fifteen years later at the same site, beneath a broiling hot sun, the U.S. Golf Association posthumously honored Stewart with its highest honor, the Bob Jones Award, given to an individual who exhibits respect for the game, personal character and the spirit of the man who won nine USGA championships and the 1930 Grand Slam.
Stewart’s daughter, Chelsea, spoke on behalf of the family at the awards ceremony. Later, she laughed when she recalled what Azinger said of his first meeting with her father.
“He was a man that spoke his mind,” she said. “I think a lot of people didn’t understand that at first but he really ended up winning most people over. Having kids, I think that helped. But I really think that he grew and matured and came into his own and realized there is more to the game of golf than just on the course. It’s really about the relationships that you make.”
There were quite a few laughs at the ceremony.
Both Azinger and Peter Jacobsen referenced Stewart’s colorful garb that included knickers, referring to his style as “Gummy Bear” and “Jolly Rancher.” But it turned serious when Azinger spoke of coming down with lymphoma in 1993.
“Payne was the first one to call me,” he said. “Sometimes we used to cross the line when we needled each other. But he changed his heart when I got sick and he became my best friend from that time on.”
Stewart’s 1999 U.S. Open win was his second in the event and third major overall.
After he sank the winning putt on the 72nd hole, he walked to runner-up Phil Mickelson, whose wife would deliver the couple’s first child the next day, and told him how great it is to be a father.